The Pros and Cons of Card Sorting in UX Research

Card sorting is a very simple and well tested technique. You can use it in UX research, Information Architecture Design, etc. card sorting helps us gain valuable insight into the structure of data. That in turn helps us better structure our products and websites.

There are two common card sorting techniques. The open card sort; this is where people are given a deck of cards with no pre-established groups and are asked to sort them in any way they see fit and then once they have sorted them – they are asked to explain why they chose the groups they chose. This is really handy for initial data sorting exercises where no existing structure exists in the product or where you are trying to replace an infrastructure which isn’t fit for purpose.

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In closed card sorts, we give people the groups we want them to place the cards in. This is a great way of building on an existing and working product.

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There are some very specific advantages and disadvantages of card sorting and they should be considered before you opt to use card sorting in your research project.

The Advantages of Card Sorting

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  • Card sorting is simple – there are very few techniques as easy as handing someone a deck of cards and asking them to sort them out.
  • Card sorting is cheap – you’re talking about some plain card and either printer ink or pen ink. You may also use some sticky notes or some Sellotape.
  • Card sorting is fast – you can run this exercise quickly and as many times as you need until you get the data you need.
  • Card sorting is user-focused – the more data we glean from our users rather than from other types of research or our “gut instinct” the better. Users will determine whether or not your product succeeds; their input in the design makes it much more likely to succeed at launch.
  • Card sorting is recognized – people have been card sorting for centuries. It’s a technique your users will be familiar with and which requires little explaining.
    Card sorting provides insight – it’s not as in depth as other research techniques but you do get some great information from the exercise.

The Disadvantages of Card Sorting

  • Card sorting ignores tasks – you can use card sorting to understand how user’s group data without reference to your product. You need to be cautious about how you translate those results into your product. We may change groupings when we have to do things with the data set. (For example; you might sort fruits into “citrus” and “non-citrus” when you are displaying them on a shelf but you might treat them all identically if you are throwing them into a carrier bag).
  • Card sorting is variable – people suck at being consistent. Sometimes card sorting brings beautifully clear and consistent results. Other times the results are so varied they’re nearly worthless.
  • Card sorting analysis can take time – the technique is quick but the analysis can take serious time; a lot depends on the complexity of data sets and whether results are consistent between the users or they aren’t.
  • Cards sorting may not go deep enough – this is kind of like the ignoring tasks disadvantage; if your users can’t place the data in context they may give you a very top level analysis without getting deep into the problem you are trying to solve.


Card sorting is a great technique but it’s not always the right technique for UX research. Always spend a little time weighing up the benefits and problems before selecting any kind of UX research technique.

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